I watched Brokeback Mountain so that I could take part in Cindy Bruchman’s Lucky 13 Film Club, a regular post on Cindy’s blog that looks to generate a discussion on a certain cinematic topic each month. Cindy was kind enough to ask me to write a couple of paragraphs about Ang Lee to get the ball rolling for December, so I decided to watch this film, one of Lee’s most celebrated pieces, as I missed it when it was first released and had never got round to seeing it. By pure coincidence it was released ten years ago last week, so there have been a few articles of late reporting on its production, release and legacy with regard to LGBT cinema; if you only have time for one this HuffPo article is pretty thorough and worth a read. More importantly, please head over to Cindy’s blog and take part if you haven’t done so already and have the time. The more the merrier!
Much of what I have to say about the film has been said many times over, and is quite obvious, but I guess I ought to add my voice to the many that have pointed out how beautiful it is. I’m referring to the melancholic, heart-wrenching story, first and foremost, which spans 20 years and concerns two cowboys who have a gay love affair outside of their respective marriages to women, but the adjective could just as easily be describing the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, which flits between the majestic peaks of the Canadian Rockies and its small towns (standing in for Wyoming and Texas), or even the memorable Oscar-winning score by Gustavo Santaolalla, a plaintive soundtrack that sits so well with the film’s theme of longing. Brokeback Mountain is a beautiful film.
The two main characters are played with plenty of committment by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger; both of their performances are very physical, particularly when it comes to the intimate, private moments their characters share when they’re away from prying eyes on the titular mountain; the sexual tension between the two builds slowly before exploding with some pretty rough sex and plenty of wrestling, particularly during the first act. There’s a certain aggression to these early sexual encounters that lessens as the men get older, and their embraces later become softer, less violent. Gradually frustration sets in as Ledger’s Ennis refuses to leave his family to move closer to (or to live with) Gyllenhaal’s Jack, his decision seemingly influenced by a horrific mutilitation of a gay man that his father forced him to witness as a child, and their relationship begins to be dictated by what they can’t do rather than what they can do together (i.e. their inability to co-habit within a society that is generally hostile to homosexual men). Ledger in particular is incredibly intense in this film, his performance recalling many of cinema’s strong, silent cowboy archetypes, while Gyllenhaal is the less overtly masculine of the two, his character struggling to assert himself over an alpha-male father-in-law. The characters change gradually each time the story is moved on several years by Lee (or rather by original writer Annie Proulx and husband-and-wife screenwriting team Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), and I think both actors managed to capture these slight personality shifts and altering priorities well. I have mixed feelings about the work of the make-up department, though; generally the aging is shown via changing facial hair and hair colouring, with a touch of expanding wasteline thrown in for good measure, but the skin of both actors looks great throughout. They’re supposed to be men who have worked and lived for twenty years in Texas and Wyoming, and yet often they look like they’ve been checking into spa retreats for at least half of that time and drinking kale juice for the rest of it.
I guess that’s a minor point, and not one that should spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film. The writing is excellent, there are strong supporting turns by Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Linda Cardellini as Jack and Ennis’ female partners, and I have no doubt that Lee deserved his Academy Award that year. Looking back at 2005, it seemed the film generated all manner of controversy at the time of its release, particularly from conservative media, commentators and groups, though that’s hardly surprising. It’s a shame that in the west there hasn’t been a mainstream, high-grossing film since that features a relationship between two men (or anything other than two people in a heterosexual relationship); in fact this interesting list of the highest grossing LGBT films of the past five years shows that only one – The Imitation Game, which foregrounds its central character’s sexual orientaton but not his relationships – has earned anything like the same amount of money as Brokeback Mountain. In the 2000’s Lee’s film was an exception as a financial success, rather than the norm; in terms of LGBT characters we’re talking about a decade where Bruno made as much money as Capote and Milk combined, though that has less to do with sexual orientation and more to do with the accessibility and mass appeal of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s brand of comedy, I guess. Anyway, it’s a pretty depressing state of affairs, and despite the financial struggles of the likes of Carol I think there’s plenty of evidence to show that films about gay people can make lots of money; it’s just that studios are refusing to get them off the ground.
There was much debate about the exact sexual orientation of the two main characters at the time, too, though I think one of the plus points is the fact that the screenplay and story do not spell it out. For what it’s worth I just assumed that both Jack and Ennis are bisexual, with one leaning closer to women and the other leaning closer to men, but of course it’s entirely possible that they are both gay men who feel they have no option but to conform to the societal norm of the day and stay with the women they meet. Lee’s film is more concerned with the sadness and frustration that surrounds their relationship, and sticks resolutely to that until the very end, rather than spending time establishing definites or examining changing attitudes to gay rights in America.
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana. Based on Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Editing: Geraldine Peroni, Dylan Tichenor.
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla.
Running Time: 134 minutes.